How do children trade off between exploration and teaching?
We know that adults can be an important source of information for children, but also that children are capable explorers and that sometimes adults don’t teach perfectly. Under which conditions are children most likely to imitate? What leads children to explore more or imitate less? How does reasoning differ between instrumental and social problems? When is relying on teaching from others most important? When is each of these strategies adaptive?




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The Balancing Act: Children’s Trade-Off Between Exploration and Teaching

Children navigate a delicate balance between exploration and learning from others, including adults. While adults can provide valuable information, children are natural explorers. Understanding the conditions that influence children’s tendencies to imitate or explore can shed light on their learning processes. This article will discuss the factors that influence children’s imitation, exploration, reasoning differences between instrumental and social problems, and when relying on teaching or exploration is most adaptive.

Imitation: When Children Are Likely to Imitate

Children are more likely to imitate when certain conditions are met. First, the credibility of the adult plays a significant role. If an adult is perceived as knowledgeable or competent, children are more likely to imitate their behaviors or actions. Second, children are more prone to imitate when they encounter complex or ambiguous situations where they lack prior knowledge or experience. In such cases, they rely on social learning by imitating others to acquire new skills or knowledge. Lastly, when children perceive that imitating certain behaviors will result in positive outcomes or rewards, they are more inclined to imitate.

Exploration: Factors that Promote Exploration

Children are natural explorers and engage in curiosity-driven activities to learn about the world around them. Several factors influence children’s inclination to explore. First, novelty and uncertainty play a vital role in stimulating exploration. When children encounter unfamiliar situations or environments, their curiosity is piqued, leading them to explore and seek new information. Second, intrinsic motivation drives exploration. When children are internally motivated to learn or discover new things, they are more likely to engage in exploratory behaviors. Finally, when children have a sense of autonomy and feel safe in their environment, they are more likely to explore freely.

Reasoning Differences: Instrumental vs. Social Problems

Children’s reasoning processes differ when faced with instrumental (problem-solving) and social problems. Instrumental problems involve finding solutions to practical challenges, whereas social problems focus on understanding social norms, emotions, or intentions. In instrumental problems, children tend to apply logical reasoning and problem-solving strategies to find the most efficient solution. However, in social problems, children rely more on social cues, emotional understanding, and empathy to navigate complex social interactions.

Importance of Relying on Teaching from Others

Relying on teaching from others becomes particularly important when children face situations that are beyond their current cognitive abilities or when acquiring specific cultural knowledge is essential for their development. Learning from adults or more knowledgeable peers allows children to acquire information efficiently and avoid potential risks or dangers associated with trial-and-error learning. Teaching provides a scaffold for children’s learning and can accelerate their acquisition of complex skills and knowledge.

Adaptive Nature of Each Strategy

Both imitation and exploration strategies have adaptive qualities depending on the context. Imitation allows children to acquire culturally relevant knowledge efficiently and learn from others’ expertise. It helps them assimilate into their social group and adopt beneficial behaviors quickly. On the other hand, exploration promotes cognitive flexibility, creativity, and independent thinking. It allows children to discover novel solutions, develop problem-solving skills, and adapt to new challenges.


Children skillfully balance between exploration and learning from others based on various factors. They are more likely to imitate when adults are credible, faced with complex situations, or expect positive outcomes. Exploration is driven by novelty, intrinsic motivation, and a sense of autonomy. Reasoning differs between instrumental and social problems, with logical reasoning dominating instrumental problems while social cues play a more significant role in social problems. Relying on teaching from others is valuable when facing cognitive challenges or cultural learning needs. Both imitation and exploration strategies have adaptive qualities depending on the context, contributing to children’s development and growth as learners and problem solvers.


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